By Geoff Webb
Set in medieval Japan and centred around the story a devout monk with a painfully ironic curse, Norihoro Niwatsukino’s curious debut feature Suffering of Ninko (Ninkô no junan) has all the hallmarks of a traditional Japanese ghost story: A troubled yet likeable hero haunted by a mysterious curse; a charming yet unruly samurai just looking out for Number One; a depraved village in need of a savior and a ghostly half-naked apparition luring our heroes ever deeper into the deep, nasty forest.
But as soon as we discover the nature of the mysterious curse afflicting the devout monk—Ninko is haplessly irresistible to all women and chased by mobs of them wherever he goes—we know we’re in for something a little different. Add to this the weaving of live-action cinematography with animated ukiyo-e woodblock animations and mandala graphics and the message is clear: this is not your regular ghost story.
Emerging director Norihoro Niwatsukino has crafted a uniquely modern evolution of the Kaidan genre all of his own. While the frequent and relatively seamless integration of colourful animations may risk jarring ghost story purists, the elegance and style of the drawings themselves serve both to harken back to ancient paper-based storytelling traditions and to evoke—in a colourfully contemporary way—the progressively anguished emotional state of the film’s hero.
To Niwatsukino, the passionate campaign for subjectivity, of having us identify with Ninko’s suffering, is of paramount importance—and for good reason. To many viewers, the affliction of being irresistible to all women (and some men) is a dubious curse and a lofty dream. But, as the sober depiction of Ninko’s peaceful quest for enlightenment is continually interrupted by splashes of erotic colour and disconcerting cameos by a faceless, nipple-less female creature who hypnotically-dances the night away in the forest, the depths of Ninko’s lonely torture are made more and more terribly vivid. Ninko’s embarrassment is furthered (and the mood is lightened) when his path crosses with that of the roving samurai Kanzo, who grunts and snorts his way through life in a way that will feel immediately familiar to fans of Toshiro Mifune of Seven Samurai-fame.
Suffice it to say that as fun as it is to watch, things are looking pretty dim for Ninko, until a crisis in a ghost town leads him and the samurai on a curious quest against a Medusa-like apparition in the forest. With the introduction of this murderous yet seductive spirit, Ninko is pulled toward a fateful encounter which will satisfy the purists out there and yet seems designed to spark much-needed conversations about the nature and consequences of sexual repression among men.
There are no easy outs here; this is not a standard cautionary tale warning against Victorian attitudes toward sex, and as complete as the story may feel as a ghost fable, Sufferings of Ninko refrains from offering viewers easy catharsis. What it does offer is a set of disquieting questions that will make the viewer shudder, look around and take notice of what they are feeling. Perhaps what makes Sufferings of Ninko most modern then, is not the title cards, the animations or the stylish delivery; it’s the film’s potential to contribute to the pressing conversation about masculine sexuality. This will become especially apparent when the most frightening thing on screen becomes the protagonist.
Not content to merely recite and pay tribute to the canon, Niwatsukino takes gambles in both form and content, stirring the creative juices of artists and artisans around him to raise questions about the nature and consequences of repressed sexuality and unspoken taboo. Some of these gambles pay off; some do not. But one thing is sure: with Sufferings of Ninko and the introduction of the myth of the “Monstrous Ninko-bo”, Niwatsukino has contributed something marvelously refreshing and new to an already-rich canon of Japanese lore.
This is the international premiere of Suffering of Ninko, which screen on Oct. 1 at 6:30pm at the Cinematheque & Oct. 2 at 12:45pm at the International Village 8.